Ahhh, the Holidays. Millions of normally civilized people overextending their budgets and sometimes their left hooks in the pursuit of the perfect gift, stretching their culinary skills (and their smoke alarms) to their furthest heights, and begging and cajoling their extended families into family pictures, lots of them, so that they can forget the stressful, over-emotional, exhausting, sleep deprived knock down, drag out fights and focus on the memories of beauty of the season.
I photograph a ton of families during the month of December, and truth be told, it’s pretty stressful getting people in the perfect outfits when they are balancing a head full of thousands of dancing sugarplums. I don’t know why it’s usually the clothes that put most rational families over the edge, but it is; that, and the sleep deprivation, guilt, anxiety and serotonins from the perpetual march of gastronomy coming from the kitchen, so keep the clothes simple, non patterned and coordinated, but not necessarily matchy-matchy.
Remember that people who come in from other time zones might be tired at odd times, especially those tiny people, so try as hard as you can to work around nap time and keep any kind of stress or expectation out of their shoot. Also avoid anything having to do with food, forks and open mouths. The combination of the three is the devils trifecta of photography. NO ONE wants a picture of themselves with their mouth open and a fork full of sweet potatoes shoveling on into it. Trust me.
Give Them What They Want
I have a wonderful family in Scottsdale who I have shot on occasion. They have a palatial castle and wanted to have their Christmas pictures done there, so we took a beautiful shot of them on their staircase:
…and then Do What’s in Your Heart as Well
Anyone would have been happy with this shot. They absolutely loved it. But while I was setting my lights up, I saw that there was so much more to them than just their obvious beauty, elegance and general fabulousness, especially when I saw them interacting together, all laughing and playing and being adorable, with the dogs running around, so I asked them if I could do a shot for me, and had them put on their pajamas. We went into the Master Bedroom, and the kids just automatically started jumping on the bed. The mom, Joan, started laughing, the dogs were barking, and her sweet little husband was just happy to be along for the ride. Perfection!!
This was their Christmas card and giant Metal Mural. It felt great to have them love something that came out of my own creativity, and I began to realize that people like to have pictures that really characterize their relationship, as opposed to only showing the fakey say-cheese-for-the camera smile, so I started experimenting with doing “Day in the Life” type shots, as opposed to the more expected, formal shots. The moments between the moments, the people behind the facades. And I found that the response to these kind of shots was excellent.
Ditch Perfection for the Perfect Moment
Tenley and Emily had their cute little “Oh Snap” gingerbread man shirts from Aeropostale on and were looking at our ridiculously extensive snowglobe collection while I was setting up to do a holiday shoot. And there they were just being so sweet and snuggly and cuddly that I shot them in our sunroom, the tree glowing in the background. How do you get that glow, you ask? Aaah, good question. You have a long exposure, of course! About 1/30th of a second will do just fine for Christmas lights. I like the warm glow of the lights, and I also love mixing ambient (daylight) and tungsten (regular bulb lights). I think it makes a nice warm glow on your models without getting too orangey.
In my house, trimming the tree is the ultimate chill time. We all tell stories about the ornaments, and laugh and drink hot chocolate and cover our tree with ornaments that are meaningful to us, so if ornament time is your happy time, when everyone is calm, start there…
..Or during cookie baking or reading traditional holiday stories, lighting the Hanukkah candles, sitting around and playing games; any time is good. Let die hard family traditions help you on your journey. … I recently read an article where they said that when you’re in a room full of people and everyone laughs, you are most inclined to look at the person who you feel closest to and laugh with them. So when Uncle Harold tells that story about the goat farmer and the hot air balloon for the ten millionth time, you know that amid the groaning and fake laughter, there will be some real moments in there, and focus on those moments. Or when your daughter sees her presents for the first time, or when the dog jumps on the counter to eat the ham… The moments are there for you to take them.
“But I Need to get something with them Smiling and Looking!!”
Ok, then do it. But make it pretty. Separate your subjects from the Christmas tree, put them in front of it by three or four feet, or even further so that the lights become larger and more “bokeh”, but at least that, so that there isn’t a shadow on the tree, and remember to think about what’s in the background. Moving the trash can and the dog bowl is absolutely ok. Taking a “fire brush” and adding in fire in the background if the black hole of the fireplace is ok, or you don’t have to. This isn’t photojournalism, where it’s unethical to change anything that’s not happening spontaneously, these are your memories. Make sure that their bodies are positioned in a manner that is pleasing to the eyes, which means no straight arms or legs, no bottoms of feet, no weird butt-out poses, and natural smiles. Tell your family a funny story or do something that’s not very “you-ish”, like jump around, and there you go…natural smiles.
Something that I like to do is tell them to get really close and then look at each other. They look, and invariably start laughing, and that’s when I take the shot.
Send me your holiday shots, good and bad to firstname.lastname@example.org so that we can have more cheer than we ever thought possible. Let’s get better together!